Date of Completion


Embargo Period



language; gestures; pejoratives; imagery; embodied cognition

Major Advisor

Mitchell Green

Associate Advisor

Dorit Bar-On

Associate Advisor

William Lycan

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Campus Access


Slurs have the striking power to promulgate prejudice. Standard semantic and pragmatic theories fail to explain how this works. Drawing on embodied cognition research, I show that metaphorical slurs, descriptive slurs, and slurs that imitate their targets are effective means of transmitting prejudice because they are vehicles for prompting hearers to form mental images that depict targets in unflattering ways or to simulate experiential states such as negative feelings for targets. However, slurs are a heterogeneous group, and there may be no one mechanism by which slurs harm their targets. Some perpetrate a visceral kind of harm – they shock and offend hearers – while others sully hearers with objectionable imagery. Thus, a pluralistic account is needed.

Although recent philosophical work on pejoratives has focused exclusively on words, derogation is a broader phenomenon that often constitutively involves various forms of non-verbal communication. This dissertation leads the way into uncharted territory by offering an account of the rhetorical power of iconic derogatory gestures and other non-verbal pejoratives that derogate by virtue of some iconic resemblance to their targets. Like many slurs, iconic derogatory gestures are designed to sully recipients with objectionable imagery. I also address ethical issues concerning the use of pejoratives. For instance, I show that the use of slurs for a powerful majority group by a vulnerable minority may be a morally valuable activity.

Available for download on Monday, July 20, 2026